Thursday, July 16, 2020

After Beinart -- What American Progressive Jews Can Do Now

Reaction to the essay and op-ed by Peter Beinart has been predictable. The usual suspects who support a so-called "two-state solution" -- in other words, any two-stater who doesn't believe in an equitable division of Israel/Palestine's geography and resources into two sovereign states, each with a strong military capacity-- are gnashing their gums (after spending decades gnashing their teeth). Those on the center-right and right have accused Beinart of all sorts of things that I won't bother to repeat. That's to be expected from folks  who would easily expel or exterminate Palestinians if they thought that equality between the two peoples were a live option. And can you blame them, from their point of view? Granting equal rights to Palestinians equals national suicide in their eyes. Jewish supremacy needs to be maintained at all costs.

Many have pointed out that Beinart's proposed one-state solution is as much a dream as an equitable two state solution.  Israel as a state will never cede any real power to Palestinians unless it is forced to, and the odds of that are slim. Annexation, de facto or de jure, is eminently sustainable, for the foreseeable future. The reason for this is that the Zionism that is the life-blood of Israel is inherently illiberal, discriminatory, and, to be blunt, immoral -- unless one considers as moral  a tribalist morality that understands the good  as what is good for the tribe. Making arguments that  "in the end, annexation will hurt Israel"  and thinking that Israelis will one day buy it is laughable. The whole Zionist enterprise was based on illiberal premises(unless we exempt, to a large extent, people like Magnes, Kohn, Buber, etc.), and that includes the European liberal, Theodore Herzl.  

I am not going to comment on the specifics of Beinart's piece. My view is that the immediate issue is not one state vs two-states, but how to empower Palestinians so they can live freely and securely  in their homeland, Palestine, whatever the political configuration. And, of course, I am referring to all Palestinians who choose to live there. Moreover, as an Israeli Jew, my own issue is what collective responsibility we Israeli Jews have to the people whose land we possessed, and whose lives we have controlled. Short answer: plenty.

How should a progressive American Jew, one who believes in equal rights, a nation of its citizens, one law for all, etc. relate to the present State of Israel? The first response is to simply distance oneself from the state.  Don't celebrate its holidays or mourn the loss of its soldiers who fell in wars of conquest. Don't support it politically. Don't wax poetic about it.  Don't see it as a place of refuge for Jews from persecution, because when a refugee needs to dominate and discriminate against  others -- and that is exactly what the Zionist state has done for the entire length of its existence -- then being persecuted is the better option.  

"Better to be offended against, than to give offense to others," says the Talmud, which Maimonides codifies as law.  That may not be good Zionism, but it is good Judaism.

But distancing and living a Jewish life minus Israel is not enough. The second answer is to join forces with Palestinians in a multitude of ways, including endorsing their civil rights movement, the Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment movement, contributing money to Palestinian causes, publicizing their plight, etc. That means inter alia building coalitions with Palestinian Americans, crossing tribal boundaries. The Torah says, "You shall not hate your brother in your heart," which is glossed by the commentator Rashi as "your brother in commandments", i..e, not your blood brother, but those who observe the commandments with you. What commandments? Minimally, the moral imperatives that we as human beings, and as Jews, are commanded by God, the source of goodness, such as all men are created in the image of God.  An unthinking love and loyalty to the Jewish people simply because they are Jews -- the love of the Jewish people that Scholem accused Arendt of lacking -- is not a traditional Jewish concept, but a Hasidic invention based on kabbalistic reification of the Jewish people as an attribute of God (Knesset Yisrael.) And when you subtract God from Judaism without a commitment to universalist morality the result is a degeneration  into tribalism and chauvinism. Family is family, but if your uncle is a wife abuser, you don't excuse him or keep your criticism within the family -- unless your morality is that of the mafia.  

Progressive American Jews should give up on the State of Israel, but not on Israelis or those who support them. Those righteous Israelis, Jews and Palestinian citizens, who are trying to change things for the better need support (just as  American Jewish progressives need support from their progressive Israeli cousins). As for the other Israeli Jews, they should be treated as disapproved family members who range from relatively harmless bigots to  condemnable segregationists and supremacists. To be more charitable, they may be viewed as children who have grown up captive to a ethno-nationalist morality and who need to be reeducated.  

A final thought: Peter Beinart has always been motivated in his public writings on Israel by his moral convictions, and yes, his understanding  of Torah and what that requires of the Jews.  I say that even when I was impatient with him in the past, when we argued precisely on the question of Palestinian equality, which he is now willing to accept as a goal. Rebecca Vilkomerson is correct to point out that much of what Peter is saying now has been said by Jewish Voice for Peace, and he has been, in my view, a bit uncharitable, or overly strategic, in not crediting his acceptance of his opponent's positions in part to their arguments. He certainly can correct that impression if he likes.

But that is a quibble.  Beinart has been accused of  arguing from the comfort of his New York apartment. Well, I live in Jerusalem, on top of a house that was appropriated by the state from its rightful owners in a battle to occupy Jerusalem, in violation of the Partition Plan that it had supposedly accepted.  And yet I don't think the moral predicament that he wrestles with is  any more comfortable for him than mine is for me. 

Being on the side of the victim sucks -- but being on the side of the perpetrator sucks even more.  Peter Beinart gets that. Many of his critics do not.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Robert A. H. Cohen on Jeremy Corbyn, Labour, and the Jews


Today's New York Times featured an article by Benjamin Mueller, the headline of which  reads, "At Odds With Labour, Britain’s Jews Are Feeling Politically Homeless". The article regurgitates the reporting of the British mainstream media (a.k.a the fake news media in this case) in explaining why "Britain's Jews" feel that Jeremy Corbyn and his Labour party are anti-Semitic, or at least tolerant of anti-Semitism in their ranks. Here is one paragraph that demonstrates the (wittingly?) distorted view of Corbyn:
An ardent anticapitalist and anti-imperialist, Mr. Corbyn once defended a mural featuring grotesque caricatures of hooknosed Jewish bankers. He accused longtime Britons who were Zionists of failing to “understand English irony.” And several whistle-blowers have accused Corbyn allies of interfering in the party’s anti-Semitism complaints process.
For those who know about the events in question, the first sentence is rubbish. The second sentence is true because the "longtime Britons who were Zionists" to whom Corbyn referred indeed "failed to understand English irony." The third has nothing to do with Corbyn himself, and the people in question were hardly whistleblowers.(For rebuttals of these and other politically-motivated charges, see here.)

Were it not for folks like Antony Lerman, Brian Klug, et al. and organizations like Jewish Voice for Labour and Independent Jewish Voices,  I would have given up long ago on the British Jewish community on this issue. I assume that there is some anti-Semitism in the British Labour party because of my assumption that bigotry and lack of empathy is ubiquitous. Lack of empathy towards British Palestinians, whose voices are seldom, if ever, heard, on this issue, is a larger problem for British society at large, and the British media, in particular.  Of course, people who appeal to racist and bigoted stereotypes, even in service of a noble cause, should be called out, but that's obvious, is it not?

Would I support Labour were I a UK citizen? As a centrist-liberal Democrat hailing from the US, I am not particularly comfortable with leftwing rhetoric and policies. I tell my Brit friends that what draws me to Corbyn is not his political or economic views but his anti-racist, pro-Palestinian positions. As a Jew, I find his ethical stance admirable, at least for a politician, but I have no idea whether I would vote for him.

So rather than give my take on what is happening over there, the best I can do is to copy here the words of the indispensable British Jewish blogger (and a fellow traveler), Robert A. H. Cohen (The piece appeared here.)

As a British Jew I’m Not Fearful of a Corbyn Government but I’m Horrified at How Antisemitism is Being Used Against Him

Robert A. H. Cohen
Nov. 13, 2019

I’ve been told to fear the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister. I’ve been warned that the Labour Party leader is antisemitic. And, according to a new poll, nearly half of British Jews are considering leaving the country if Labour wins the General Election on December 12th.

Despite the doomsday picture being painted for British Jews, I’m not fearful of Corbyn or the possibility of him reaching 10 Downing Street. Nor do I believe that the Labour Party is “poisoned” or “rampant” with antisemitism. But what has left me horrified over the last four years has been the reckless and irresponsible way in which antisemitism has been used to vilify Corbyn and make the entire Labour Party appear toxic.

For the record, I’m not a Labour Party activist, or even a Labour Party member. I have no particular brief to support Jeremy Corbyn. In local and national elections over the years, I’ve voted for Liberal Democrat candidates, Labour candidates and Green candidates. Geography means I don’t attend a synagogue as often as I’d like to, but I read and love my Jewish prayer book, and at home we light Shabbat candles and we celebrate the Jewish festivals. I worry about rising antisemitism around the world and I care about the safety and security of Jews in Britain. And because of all these things, it bothers me deeply when I see antisemitism become drained of meaning for the sake of narrow political advantage.

The UK’s Brexit induced General Election was always going to be about more than just Brexit. And so it should be. A decade of chronic underinvestment in public services; the growing disparity between rich and poor; our response to the Climate Emergency; and the very future of the United Kingdom itself, all need to be central themes of the campaign over the next month. The one issue that does not need to be part of the debate is antisemitism. At least not the version of the antisemitism debate we’ve been having over the last few years which has become profoundly politicised.

The opening days of the campaign
As things stand, scaremongering about antisemitism is in danger of hijacking the 2019 election. This is not good for British Jews nor for British democracy.

The position of the Jewish Chronicle and the Jewish News, the two most widely read Jewish newspapers in the UK, is entirely expected and consistent with the campaign they have been running since September 2015 when Corbyn was elected Labour Party leader.

As this General Election campaign got underway, the Jewish Chronicle’s editorial stated:

“The impact of a Labour victory is almost unimaginable for our community…The prospect is truly frightening.”

The Jewish News titled its main Op Ed ‘The nightmare before Chanukah?’

What exactly are these editorial writers expecting to happen if Corbyn becomes Prime Minister? Shouldn’t it be possible to imagine it? Is there some hidden anti-Jewish manifesto in Corbyn’s back pocket that only they have seen? Their language suggests they expect immediate discriminatory laws against Jews to be enacted by a Corbyn government or, at the very least, a hostile environment against Jews to be created across the country.

Speaking at a formal dinner of the Board of Deputies of British Jews on November 4 the Board’s President, Marie van de Zyl, also hinted at the dark consequences of a Corbyn victory by saying the Board was “preparing for all scenarios.”

What kind of “scenarios” is the Board preparing for? It’s never made clear because it makes no sense. But a feeling of impending doom is created and left hanging in the air.

The Guardian columnist, Jonathan Freedland, who’s been a prominent left of centre critic of Corbyn since his election, wove the same mood of dread and anxiety in a recent article in which he repeated the now well-worn (and well-refuted) allegations against Corbyn:

“I understand that to many, all this will sound overwrought. I’m afraid that Jewish history has made us that way, prone to imagining the worst. We look at our usually sparse family trees and we can pick out the pessimists, those who panicked and got out. It was they who left their mark on us. You see, the optimists, those who assumed things would work out for the best, they never made it out in time.”

It sounds “overwrought” because it is overwrought. But worse still, it’s feeding a moral panic across the nation and stoking fear in Jewish homes without a credible threat being presented.

But the Jewish establishment’s campaign against Jeremy Corbyn has never been only about convincing British Jews not to vote Labour.

The number of Jewish voters in the UK is tiny. Including adults and children, we make up only 0.5% of the population. There are only a handful of constituencies, mostly in North London, where Jewish votes (assuming they are cast uniformly) could make a decisive difference to the outcome. In any case, the majority of Jews stopped voting Labour long before Corbyn became leader. That’s to do with the economic and social advancement that most Jews in Britain have achieved. Until recently, it’s had nothing to do with Corbyn or antisemitism.

So branding Corbyn as antisemitic has always been about influencing the wider UK electorate. And it may well have succeeded. A poll carried out in April 2019 reported that 55% of respondents agreed with the statement that Mr Corbyn’s “failure to tackle anti-semitism within his own party shows he is unfit to be prime minister”.

Conservative supporting national newspapers, in particular the Daily Mail, The Times, The Telegraph, The Express, have all been enthusiastic amplifiers of the ‘Corbyn is antisemitic’ narrative. Neither these national newspapers nor the more liberal Guardian or the BBC, have shown much interest in seriously interrogating, let along challenging the allegations. The case against our mainstream media in its handling of the Labour antisemitism saga has been well established by media analysts and antisemitism experts in the book ‘Bad News for Labour’ published last month.

Meanwhile, the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats’ leader, Jo Swinson, speaking at her party’s election campaign launch on November 5 came up with the most peculiar, contorted and self-serving framing of the antisemitism accusation I’ve seen so far:

“Most importantly, the reason why people are Remain [on the Brexit question] is about values, and one of those values is so important – is the value of equality – for recognising that people can be themselves, as individuals, whatever the colour of their skin, whatever God they pray to, whoever they are. And Jeremy Corbyn’s complete and utter failure to root out antisemitism in his own Party, is a – just – total dereliction of duty when it comes to protecting that value of equality.”

While this alignment of racism, inequality and support for Brexit may have some coherence when you look to the political right, it’s hard to make sense of it in Corbyn’s case, not when you examine Corbyn’s track record on campaigning against racism or his party’s policies on immigration and refugees. And while Corbyn’s position on Brexit is deliberately ambiguous, painting him as a hard Brexiteer doesn’t tally with his party’s position over the last three years. But hey, let’s not let any pesky facts spoil the antisemitism story.

As for the Conservative Party leader and current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, he’s happily climbed on the bandwagon by describing his main opponents in this election as: “fratricidal antisemitic Marxists”. I feel sure he will return with characteristic enthusiasm to the subject as the election campaign reaches its climax.

For a more detailed account of how the right is exploiting and abusing antisemitism during this election, and over the last few years, I’d recommend the article by antisemitism academic Tony Lerman in Open Democracy.

The case against Corbyn’s Labour
So what is the case against Corbyn? And does it stack up as the show-stopping, moral argument against his gaining elected high office?

It’s always been difficult to disentangle the allegations of antisemitism from the wider divisions within Labour over Corbyn’s shift of the party to the left. The growing influence of more left-wing Labour members at the grass roots and within its national decision making bodies has been fought against by Labour MPs who favoured the Blair/Brown years of Labour leadership. Antisemitism has, in part, become a proxy battle in a bigger ideological war over how Labour should respond to decades of neo-liberalism and more recently austerity. So motivations can be, and have been, mixed and complex.

But there’s another at factor at play that’s always been at the heart of the story about Labour and antisemitism.
It’s impossible to understand the personal criticism against Corbyn without recognising that it’s nearly always in the context of a wider debate over the behaviour of Israel towards the Palestinian people.

Corbyn has been a long standing campaigner for Palestinian rights for decades. Those official and establishment Jewish voices that say they fear a Corbyn government tell us they do so because they fear a radical change in the safety and security of Jews in Britain. But a more credible explanation for their accusations is the possibility of a radical change in the attitude of the British government towards the State of Israel. But in merely expressing the possibility of a political motive behind the attacks, one quickly becomes branded as anti-Jewish. Freedom of speech gets buried alive in this war over the meaning of antisemitism.

Having noted this central aspect of the saga, it’s also true that some on the left make themselves, and by association Corbyn, easy targets for justified criticism. The left’s emphasis on the wrongs of empire, colonialism and racism lead to a small minority expressing an obsessive and un-nuanced understanding of Zionist thinking which too easily trips into antisemitism.

It’s true too that Israel/Palestine has become a totemic cause on the left, much as South African apartheid was in the 70s and 80s or the Vietnam War in the 60s. But there are perfectly legitimate reasons for wanting to highlight Israel as a nation with a long and on-going history of human rights abuses which western leaders choose not to act against. A few on the left will make the lazy mistake of falling into anti-Jewish rhetoric to explain why this has happened. This in turn enables the professional advocates for Israel to label all anti-Israel criticism on the left as founded on nothing more than antisemitism.

The questions we are then left with are: how great is the scale of the problem and how well has Corbyn dealt with it?

Let the numbers speak
The precise scale of reported antisemitism within the Labour Party became clear at the start of this year when Labour’s general secretary, Jennie Formby, released detailed numbers covering accusations of antisemitism made against Labour members between April 2018 and January 2019. This covered the period during which media interest in the story reached fever pitch in the summer and autumn of 2018.

The 673 accusations as a percentage of party members amounted to 0.1% of the total Party membership. However, 220 of the allegations were rejected through the disciplinary process which left 453 (or 0.08% of party membership) accused, found guilty and disciplined. Of these, only 12 were considered serious enough to warrant permanent expulsion.

Further analysis of these figures, and other data, and their comparison to survey data of antisemitism in the UK population as a whole, has been carried out by statistician Alan Maddison. The upshot is, there’s less antisemitism in Labour than you would expect to find in the UK population as a whole (which is already among the lowest in the world). In fact, reputable surveying in 2017 by Jewish Policy Research, showed that antisemitism was more prevalent on the right and far right than on the left in the UK.

“Levels of antisemitism among those on the left-wing of the political spectrum, including the far-left, are indistinguishable from those found in the general population.”

Which again begs the question as to why all the focus has been on Labour since Corbyn became leader. The numbers suggest we should be looking elsewhere.

What about Corbyn himself?
If Jeremy Corbyn is truly antisemitic he must be the most unusual and eccentric example of antisemitism ever displayed by a British political leader and perhaps any political leader.

When you are told that a politician is a diehard antisemite you don’t expect to then discover that over the decades he’s signed dozens of Early Day Parliamentary motions condemning antisemitism; helped organised protests against anti-Jewish marches; visited the Terezin concentration camp to commemorate Holocaust victims; attended numerous Jewish events in his constituency; and read the war poetry of Isaac Rosenberg at his local Remembrance Day service.

The list of antisemitic ‘crimes’ by Corbyn which have been ‘unearthed’ to ‘expose’ his guilt all crumble for anyone who bothers to do some fact checking or examine the context in which they happened.

If I have criticisms of Corbyn over his handling of antisemitism it’s that he did not defend himself or his party more robustly.

He should have toured the TV studios during the spring and summer of 2018 to refute the allegations made against him. He should have invited his accusers, in particular Campaign Against Antisemitism, and the leaders of the Board of Deputies, Jewish Leadership Council and the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, to debate face to face. He should have given a platform to Palestinian voices to demonstrate the problematic nature of the IHRA “illustrations” of antisemitism. He should have given a major speech setting out his understanding of Jewish history, of antisemitism, of what does and does not count as fair criticism of Israel and Zionism.

The strategy of not giving more oxygen to the allegations through direct engagement turned out to be wrong. It just encouraged more vilification.

The failure of Jewish leadership
But the greatest failings in this story have not been Corbyn’s.

Over the last four years the formal leadership of the Jewish community in the UK, aided and abetted by Jewish community newspapers and the Campaign Against Antisemitism, have succeed in making the task of fighting anti-Jewish behaviour harder and more complicated.

They have exaggerated a problem within Labour and enabled a false narrative to take hold in the public’s understanding of the issue. In doing this, they have made antisemitism into a party political football.

With their promotion of the IHRA document as the international ‘gold standard’ of wording rather than the “working document” its authors describe it as, they have imposed on politicians, local authorities, universities and Churches a weak and deeply flawed definition of antisemitism.

They have promoted illustrations of antisemitism which are already chilling free speech and denying another people their history and identity.

By turning antisemitism into a political battleground, they have created ‘good Jews’ and ‘bad Jews’ – those that are allowed to speak with a Jewish voice and those that are condemned as traitors.

The campaign against Labour has never been about reforming or educating a small minority or rooting out a tiny hardcore of antisemitism. This has been about regime change. Only Corbyn’s resignation as leader was ever going to be truly acceptable.

With a General Election campaign now in full swing, Labour candidates and Labour activists, and indeed Labour voters, are being told they are actively promoting antisemitism or at least ignoring the concerns of the Jewish community in Britain. It’s no longer just Corbyn that’s being vilified. It’s half the country.

Meanwhile, Jewish families have become fearful under entirely false pretenses.

This is not good Jewish leadership. This is a dangerous failure of leadership.

If Labour loses this election and antisemitism allegations are perceived to have been a key factor in the Party’s defeat, what will be the long term political consequences? How will millions of voters perceive our Jewish institutions and leaders and indeed Jews in general?

A better debate on antisemitism
Whatever the result of this General Election, we’re going to need a better and very different debate about antisemitism in Britain than the one we’ve been having.

Antisemitism is real and it’s growing. We need to face into the role Israel plays in generating antisemitism. We need to recognise that Zionism can be experienced as both a movement for Jewish liberation and as a project of racist, settler colonialism. We need to be clear from which political direction the most serious dangers to Jews and other minorities are coming from. For some on the left, there is a need to learn some Jewish history and appreciate why so many Jews feel such an emotional tie towards Israel.

As for those who currently claim to speak in the interests of Jews in Britain, they too could do with some serious historical and political education. Or perhaps just early retirement.








Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Should I Revive This Moribund Blog?

Some of my readers may notice that I have not written much in the last two years. In fact, I haven't written anything.

About a year and a half ago, I started writing a post with the above title. I didn't write anything after the title. Apparently, the answer was, "No."

Who reads blogs anymore? I used to spend a couple of hours on each post, and then I thought, "Why not just post a status update on Facebook?" I did that until over a year ago, when I deleted my Facebook accounts. I don't tweet (well, once or twice every five years.) whatsapp is for family; I don't know how snapchat and instagram work. 

The real reasons that I stopped posting: a) I said almost all I had to say several times; b) the situation had become even more bleak since then for Palestine; c) the world got politically worse;  d) it's not about me, and who cares what I think?

Still if I add to my guilt the guilt of not writing anything, then I feel worse and worse. So here's a quick update of my thinking:

1. Zionism, as a movement to create a Jewish nation state, in the way it was created, cannot be morally justified. No people has a right to life, liberty, and self-determination at the expense of another people's right to life, liberty, and self-determination, especially when the latter people constituted the majority of the territory claimed by the former. A propos morality, I believe that the Palestinian Arabs and their leaders had a moral obligation to oppose Zionist resettlement of Jewish refugees, whose purpose was not to live in peace in a Palestian state, but to conquer the land for the Jews. Statist Zionism has succeeded for one very obvious reason: the Zionists were strong and the Palestinians were weak. That's a "tale as old as time..." To see religious significance in the founding of the state of Israel, in the way that religious Zionists do, is blasphemous. My God doesn't destroy an innocent people to make way for me. And you know what -- neither does the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, or even Joshua.

2. The particular state of Israel founded in 1948, and whose ethos continues to the present day, is thus, in my mind, without moral justification. A necessary condition for its moral justification is regime change, i. e., the replacement of an ethnic-exclusivist state by a binational or bicultural state of all its citizens. Necessary, but not sufficient -- the Zionists, and, indeed, Israel and its supporters, have a collective responsibility to better the lives, liberty, freedom, and self-determination of the Palestinians -- a responsibility that will continue for decades into the future.

3. I can hope for such things, but they won't occur in my lifetime, at least. So what interests me now is how can people try to remain moral, or more moral, living in a political framework that is inherently immoral. What should they do? The easiest and most consistent answer is simply to move somewhere else. But that answer is unavailable to me for several reasons. First, as an economically well-off white male, I will enjoy privilege wherever I go. Second, and more to the point, my children and their families live in Israel. Third, Israel is my home. So staying in Israel, like staying in any inherently immoral regime where the prospects of significant change are remote, has challenges that people who care about these things need to face.

4. The best I can do -- and it is nowhere good enough -- is to donate time and money to causes that will make Israel/Palestine a more just society, to speak up and explain my position to others who support the Jewish state, to help alleviate specific suffering and inequality,to support individuals and groups who promote change, etc.  

5. None of the above relieves me of my feeling of perpetrator guilt. For me, the single most pressing challenge to Jews and Judaism today is the treatment of the Palestinians, past, present, and future, and I know of only a handful of people who would agree with me. What Jewish thinker is writing about it? We read about Jewish spirituality (especially in Israel) on the right, of tikun olam/social justice on the left, etc., but what deeply Jewish personality is at all bothered about this? And don't get me started on the rabbis....

6. So what gives me hope? Several things: first, sumud, Palestinian endurance, the refusal, indeed, inability, of the Palestinians to give up, get over it,  and move on. Second, the passing of time, and the passing of the hackneyed Zionist narrative, and, indeed, the weakening of support for a Jewish ethnic state  among thinking individuals who take liberty and equality seriously. Third, the aging and passing of my generation, the boomer generation , which was innoculated against common-sense morality by Zionist indoctrination, and ignorance of a Palestinian counter-narrative more consistent with the facts. 

7. I recently attended the opening evening of the J Street Convention, and the loudest cheers among the young people were for folks like Bernie Sanders, Ayman Odeh, and for notions of Israel-Palestinian civil equality and partnership. These are young Jews who may not wish to join the BDS movement, but see nothing wrong with it as a movement of Palestinian resistance. Yes, some of them  consider themselves Zionist, but they are willing to trade-in traditional Zionism for a weaker version, i.e., an Israel that fosters Jewish national and cultural aspirations but not at the expense of Palestinian national and cultural aspirations. Let's hope that they bend the arc of justice more than my generation has.

8. To call anti-Zionism or criticism of the Israeli regime "anti-Semitic" is not only false, but is also a hateful and hurtful slur, which should be condemned as such.  It often masks deep bigotry and ethnic prejudice. Wishing to see all Israelis dead is not anti-Semitic although it is an expression of anti-Israel bigotry, which, like all bigotry, should be condemned.  




Tuesday, November 14, 2017

How Not To Argue Against Student Divestment Proposals

Students who support the human and civil rights of Palestinians are submitting proposals on college campuses that call for their universities to divest from companies that profit from Israel’s occupation and administration of Palestinian territories.

As a faculty member I believe it is inappropriate for me to take a position publicly on a student issue. (Others might reasonably disagree.) But I would like to answer some of the questions that opponents of the proposal often raise. Although there may be good reasons to oppose divestment proposals, you won’t find them in the questions below.

1. “Why should student government associations single out Israel for divestment when there are worst human rights offenders?”

The answer is simple: there are students at the university whose lives are directly impacted by Israel’s actions in the Palestinian controlled territories. Some of them are of Palestinian descent; others may have relatives on the West Bank and Gaza. Some of them are Israelis who support this symbolic gesture. Then there are roommates, friends, and ordinary people who sympathize with the plight of the Palestinians under occupation.

To suggest that these students should be more concerned with the plight of Syrian refugees or with human rights violations in China than with their own people is dehumanizing and inconsistent; dehumanizing, because it is human to care most about those who are closest to you; inconsistent, because the partisans making this charge clearly are themselves concerned more with defending Israel than with much worse human rights violations.

2. “Aren’t there two sides to every question? This proposal only presents one!”

It is indeed important for the student legislators to educate themselves about the proposal and to listen carefully to both sides. What they will learn is that although both both Israelis and Palestinians have suffered from violence, only one side has controlled the lands, lives, and resources of the other side for over fifty years. Israelis do not live under Palestinian military occupation; their lands are not expropriated for Palestinian settlement; their freedom of movement is not restricted. Israelis collect their own taxes; are governed by their own elected representatives; are subject to their own civilian justice system.

3. “Isn’t the situation more complicated than the proposal suggests?”

The situation in the Middle East and in Israel/Palestine is indeed complicated. But there is nothing complicated about denying human rights to an entire people on the grounds of security and the desire to construct settlements on their land. No partisan of Israel can seriously argue that its security requires denying fundamental human rights to Palestinian civilians on a permanent basis.  No country’s security can be defended in that manner.

4. “Aren’t divestment proposals bad for the peace process?”

Even if the answer to the above is yes – and it has recently been argued by the Crisis Group analyst Nathan Thrall that only external pressure has moved the Israel/Palestinian peace process forward – these proposals are not about states and the political aspirations of people. They are about respecting the human and civil rights of a people under a never-ending occupation. Were Israel to annex the West Bank and Gaza and offer full and equal citizenship to the Palestinians living there, there would be less need for these proposals.

5. “Instead of calling for divestment, why not call for investment in peace?”

Once again, divestment proposals are not about peace, or the rights of Palestinians and Israelis to states of their own. They are about human rights that must be ensured before there are peace negotiations. Neither side is ready for peace negotiations, which can only be conducted by sides of equal or near equal power.  Calling for the university to invest in peace is admirable; but calling upon it to divest from companies that profit from the occupation is one way that students can express solidarity not only with those students whose families and friends suffer daily, but with all the Israeli and Palestinian people of good will who support the rights of both sides to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Whether university student government associations ultimately decide against or for divestment proposals, this is an educational moment. Universities have academic courses on Israel/Palestine that I recommend students check out. Students and faculty can learn a great deal by listening to each other, and by educating themselves on this critical issue. We are all part of one community.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Some Elul Suggestions for Liberal Zionists and for Progressive Jews who are Not

Elul is the Jewish month for soul-reckoning. Traditionally, Jews don't make New Year resolutions, but they are expected to try harder in anticipation of the High Holiday Season. So in that spirit, I have a few practical suggestions for my liberal Zionist as well as my progressive non-Zionist and anti-Zionist brothers and sisters (and for myself).

1. Pay for a subscription to Haaretzand read it several times a week. Sign up for the daily notifications. Read articles by reporters like Nir Hasson, Amira Hass, and Gideon Levy, and op-ed writers like Dimitri Shumsky and Daniel Blatman, among others. Read 972mag regularly.  Get an education on what is happening to the Palestinians living in Palestine today. I am amazed at the people who have all sorts of views on Israel, but who don't read keep up with Haaretz. Reading the paper on a regular basis not only shows support for its journalistic courage; it has a long-term cumulative effect.You can read Gideon Levy once or twice and be shocked. You can read him a third or fourth time, shake your head, and turn the page. But if you read him weekly, year in and year out, and if you have not hardened your heart,  you will be transformed.

2. Read Palestinian policy voices, like the Al-Shabaka policy network.  Those folks represent some of the most thoughtful Palestinian voices writing today. For too long discussion about Israel has been an intra-Jewish family affair. Jews need to be listening to Palestinians and working together with them.

3. Ban two words from your vocabulary when you refer to each other: 'anti-Semitic' and 'racist'. There are bigots everywhere, but hoping that the State of Israel will be replaced by a state that provides equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians is not anti-Semitic; saying that the Jews don't have a right to a state is not anti-Semitic. What is anti-Semitic? Wishing Jews harm because they are Jews, or considering them to be objectionable because they are Jews. Calling a Jew who supports BDS an anti-Semite is often itself anti-Semitic, since it presumes to restrict what Jews can acceptably say. That's the first half of the suggestion. The second is to reserve the term 'racist' for real racist statements, not for statements that are interpreted by other people as  'dog whistles'. Yes, we should be sensitive to what we say. But we should also be charitable in interpreting what others say, all things being equal. Terms like 'anti-Semitic' and 'racist' are terms of moral opprobrium. They represent the nuclear option, and their use should be restricted.

4. Learn about Zionism before you praise or condemn it. Don't reduce it to a slogan or a category. From its inception Zionism spoke with several voices and appealed to different sentiments within the Jewish public.  Its development was not linear and, like everything else, was a product of its historical context, and adapted to changing circumstances. For all its flaws in implementation, Zionism has provided  hundreds of thousands of Jews with feelings of  dignity, self-worth, ethnic pride, and security. The surge of Zionist identification among American Jewish progressives in the late 1960s and the early 1970s coincided with (and was influenced by) the Black Power and the Women's Liberation movements.  This does not justify the problematic aspect of Zionism, its inevitable clash with the rights of the Palestinian natives. It doesn't justify the path it took, which was not inevitable, but was the product of decisions in historical context. Nor does it excuse some of its extreme versions. But both tactically and principally,  the pursuit of justice for the Palestinians should not be held hostage to an ideological struggle over Zionism, especially when our identities are invested in that struggle.

5. Most importantly,  the struggle for Palestinian rights must  be placed front and center. Ending a long and brutal occupation must be the goal that brings together Palestinians and Jews, and Zionist and non-Zionist Jews  It's not about our own identity issues as Americans or as Jews, or Jewish Americans. Injustice is committed hourly in the name of the Jewish people. There are times when the pursuit of universal values should trump ethnic and communal loyalties. Even after Charlottesville, and the rise of the alt-right, the American Jewish community is still, barukh ha-Shem, very strong and safe. Jewish communities may be potential victims everywhere, but there is only one place where the Jewish community is a perpetrator. That puts upon us a responsibility to unharden our hearts and to do the right thing.  It's not about us; it's about what is being done to them in our names.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Does Aristotle write for Tablet and the Forward?

Aristotle's logic includes not only rules of valid inference but also fallacies, i.e., rules of invalid inference and other strategies to trip up your opponent in debate. 

If Aristotle were around today, he would offer the following rule for the online writer: Always link to a claim that doesn't really support your claim. Most of your readers won't check your links anyway, just as most readers of scholarly articles don't check footnotes.

Two articles on movements that support boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel appeared in the mainstream Jewish media today. What they shared was the "confirmatory link" fallacy.

Over at Tablet, Prof. Jarrod Tanny (a.k.a. Jarropolk Tenewitz) calls upon Jewish Studies colleagues to recognize Jewish Voice for Peace's "demagoguery" and take a stand against the organization.  He attributes to JVP a litany of offences, and, as any good academic, provides links ostensibly to support his claims. But a perusal of the links shows that none backs up his assertions.

Especially odd is his link purporting to provide evidence for his claim that JVP doesn't take leftwing anti-Semitism seriously. I clicked on the link expecting to find a JVP statement to that effect. Instead, my browser was redirected to an ADL website which made no mention of leftwing anti-Semitism at all, much less JVP's alleged tolerance of of it. Giving Prof. Tanny the benefit of the doubt, I clicked again and read the entire ADL profile. Again, no mention of "left" or "leftwing" anti-Semitism. I then googled "JVP" and "anti-Semitism" and found JVP's  condemnation of Alison Weir, a pro-Palestinian activist, for not dissociating herself from anti-Semites, as well as noted leftwing anti-Semite Gilad Atzmon's criticism of JVP for its position.  

Although this was the most egregious of the nine links purportedly supporting Prof. Tanny's claims, an examination of each one of them shows that they don't support them at all. I don't have time for all the debunking; just click and see for yourself. And that's leaving aside the fact that some of the links don't even take you to JVP websites.

Unlike Prof. Tanny, I am not discouraged that other Jewish Studies academics are not rallying to his call. Apparently, he is one corner; the rest of his colleagues are somewhere else.

But why pick on Tablet when, the Forward, under the misleading headline, "David Grossman Play Under Attack By BDS Supporters" claims that Grossman's play is a "surprising target" for boycott, when it is not being targeted for boycott at all. As anybody who reads the  link to Adalah NY can see, the boycott is not at all targeted against Grossman or his play as such, but against the Israeli government's support of the play, and the fact that the two Israeli theater companies producing it perform in settlements built illegally on Palestinian land. (The first reason is mentioned by the Forward.)  "Why would anybody boycott a play by a good Israeli like David Grossman" makes as much sense as "Why would anybody boycott a symphony by a good Russian like Shostakovich?? And yet when the Moscow Symphony Orchestra performed in the United States at the height of the student struggle for Soviet Jewry, Jewish activists outside the concert halls asked concertgoers to boycott the Soviet Union's exercise in public diplomacy. It wasn't Shostakovich or the conductor that was being boycotted. (I suppose this could be called "Shostakovich -washing")

At least Tablet and the Forward provides links, and to be fair, the Forward gets most of the story right. But maybe they assume -- or hope -- that their readers won't click.

Or maybe when it comes to non-violent actions taken by supporters of Palestinian human rights, demonization is de rigeur

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Selling Purim to Progressives in the Era of Trump

It has been my custom to reproduce this “Selling Purim to Progressives” post occasionally on Purim.  The last time was in 2015, when we were in the midst of the Iran negotiations.

Well, since then the world made a deal with Iran. Trump may say that it's a lousy deal, but he doesn't plan on changing it soon, certainly not to Bibi's liking, And as for the guy who's running Trump, forget about it; Putin is telling Bibi to move on.

That's the good news. We all know the bad news, and it's not about Haman, either.

I wrote a few years ago that the real message of the Scroll of Esther should be that diplomacy works; self-defense is the last resort; and one should act  only with the consent of the legitimate authority. In other words, Jewish unilateralism and aggression are dumb and counterproductive.

But what do I mean by "the real message".  Every story has multiple messages and morals. The one we choose says as much about what we are about as what the story is about.  So my first point is: Progressives are not forced to cede interpretative rights to anybody. It is possible to focus on the particularism and the tribalism in the story. That may be justified, depending on the context. But we should be wary of the demand for relevance. A friend on FB claims that Barukh Goldstein ruined the holiday for him; another friend said the same for a revenge attack on Jewish civilians. A third said that it reminds him of settlers rejoicing over the death of Palestinian "Amaleks".

When I think of Purim, the first thing I think of is being dressed up as part of a donkey who was  led around by Haman, or was it Mordecai, when I was in elementary school. That leads to me think of Scout Finch dressed up as a ham on that fateful evening she and Jem were attacked by Bob Ewell, in To Kill a Mockingbird. And then my mind switches back to the festivities at the the Krieger Auditorium of the Chizuk Amunoh Congregation, where they are singing,

Oh, once there was a wicked, wicked man,
And Haman was his name, sir!

But I regress....

My point is that the words of the Scroll Esther, or for that matter, Jewish liturgy, are not always to be taken literally; in some instances, they are not to be taken literally at all. Why should I, who believe in the divinity of Torah, be bound by what the text says, a text written millennia ago by people whose morality and worldview I only partially share? Yes, there are lessons to be learned -- read on, progressive skeptic! -- and, yes,  there are passages that make me cringe. But at the end of the day, I have chosen to live my life as a Jew according to the rhythm of the Jewish calendar, and according to my memories, the connections with school, family, shul, etc.

It wouldn't occur to me to abandon a Jewish holiday because of a problematic text. If I did that, I would chuck most of tradition. I would much prefer wrestling with those who take the tradition over to the dark side of particularism, chauvinism, and tribalism. Can we find these things in the Scroll of Esther? Less than in Joshua, more than in Isaiah. But we can also choose to interpret it according to our moral intuitions and reasoning, which is precisely what my cultural heroes, the medieval Jewish philosophers, did.  For some, that is an intellectual cop-out (hey, I teach in a philosophy department!) For me, it's a life choice.

And now, back to Selling Purim to the Progressives 4.0

Why don’t progressives like Purim? Oh, that’s easy.  It's not just the Scroll of Esther; it's the Amalek thing; it's the Barukh Goldstein thing (Goldstein was the settler who on Purim murdered Palestinians in prayer); it's the Hanan Porat "Purim Sameah" ("Happy Purim") thing (That's what the Gush Emunim leader allegedly said when he heard about the Goldstein massacre, though he claims that he was not celebrating Goldstein, but urging people to continue with the holiday, despite the horrible thing that had happened.) And mature adults don’t like the primitive customs associated with reading the megillah and Purim, like making deafening noise when the villain Haman's name is mentioned, or getting stone drunk. “A holiday for little children and idiots,” one person recently summed up Purim for me.

Well, that’s true to an extent. But Purim doesn’t have to be that way.  And the Scroll of Esther can be read to teach an important moral lesson. But we’ll get to that.

Consider the following:

As Marsha B. Cohen points out in her excellent post here, the Scroll of Esther is not history. I mean, there probably never was an Esther or a Mordecai or Haman. The story of Purim is part of the Jewish collective memory, which means that it never happened. So don't worry about innocents being killed, because according to the story, no innocents were killed. According to the story, the victims were guilty, or the offspring of those who were guilty, and in the ancient world, the offspring are generally considered extensions of their parent.  Is that a primitive, tribalistic morality? Of course! But it helps a bit to realize that we are in the realm of fantasy. I can't shed tears over the death of Orcs either.
Once the book is understood as a fable written two thousand years ago, there are two possible ways of responding to it: by reading it literally as representing a morality that gets a B-(after all, Haman is indeed a villain that turns a personal slight into a call for genocide, and the Jews are indeed set upon), or by reading into it, against the grain of the story, our own moral imperatives.
I adopt both responses, but I prefer the latter. For one thing, I am doing what my medieval Jewish culture heroes, the rationalist philosophers like Maimonides, always did -- providing non-literal interpretations of scripture that were in tune with their own views.

James Kugel has argued persuasively that if you detach the Bible from its classical interpreters -- which is what Protestant Christianity and modern Biblical criticism attempts to do -- then the book you are left with is mediocre as literature, and only partly agreeable as ethics. The Bible has always undergone a process of interpretation, of mediation, even in its very text, because none of the classic readers could relate to it as a document produced in a certain time and place, but as timeless.
So for me to relate to the Scroll of Esther, and to the Purim holiday in general, I emphasize (and distort) those points that are congenial to my ethics and worldview, and just dismiss the rest as pap for members of the family with a tribal morality.   I read the story of Esther as a fictional fantasy about how my people, through political wisdom and without religious fanaticism, or the help of a Deus ex machina, triumphed over the enemies who wished to destroy them because they were different.

And that is a message which I will apply not only to my people, but to all beleaguered peoples who are in danger of having their identity and culture -- and physical welfare-- destroyed by forced assimilation, in the name of a superior culture and/or ethnic homogeneity. Because if what Haman wanted to do the Jews was wrong, then it is also wrong when anybody wishes to do this to any group.

After all, think of a contemporary leader who, because of slights to his national honor, and unwillingness to genuflect to his country’s power, punishes an entire people by  withholding their tax revenues, or turning off their electricity.

Pretty scary guy – and not just on Twitter.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Israel/Palestine: Relegating the One State/Two State Debate to the Dustbin of History

Following Secretary of State John Kerry's speech on Israel-Palestine, Prof. Corey Robin pointed out the following on Facebook:
There's something so surreal about the state of the Israel/Palestine debate in this country. John Kerry makes a speech today, warning that if we don't act soon, the two-state solution may be in jeopardy. Liberals swoon: Unprecedented! Conservatives seethe: Unprecedented! Meanwhile, on April 18, 2013, John Kerry said: "I believe the window for a two-state solution is shutting. I think we have some period of time – a year to year-and-a-half to two years, or it’s over." In other words, as of April 18, 2015—more than a year and a half ago—the two-state solution was finished. We live in a kabuki republic, where everyone makes these stylized gestures, entirely rhetorical, that mean nothing. And everyone knows they mean nothing. Yet everyone acts as if they mean something.
I would say that we we live in a "Groundhog's Day" republic, except that things have gotten worse since 2015. So I plan to repost things that I wrote in the past if I feel they are still timely. And they probably will always be "timely".

The following post was written in May 2012. The one-state/two-state debate was "weary, stale, and unprofitable" then, and it is even more so now, with the incoming Republican administration. We are, and have been, for some time in a one-state reality. Israel has ruled for three generations over people without their consent and against their will, with a different system of law. Israel today is a democracy in the sense that America was a democracy before African Americans and Native Americans were made citizens and given the vote  -- in short, it is at best a nineteenth-century democracy. The question then is:  How do we focus our energies under the current situation, which shows no signs of changing within my lifetime? This is what I wrote in 2012:


Is the two-state solution for Israel-Palestine still viable? Perhaps it is time to admit, in the spirit of Voltaire, that the two-state solution was never about two states, nor was it a solution, nor could it ever be viable. 

It was not about a Palestinian state, because a state’s fundamental purpose is to provide security and a sense of security to its citizens. But even the most far-reaching of the two-state proposals did not allow the Palestinians to have a strong army. After a century of Zionism, security and the sense of security are what the Palestinians crave most. That is why in poll after poll, what Palestinians on the West Bank oppose most is “an independent Palestinian state that would have no army, but would have a strong security force and would have a multinational force deployed in it to ensure its security and safety.”
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Ahmad Gharabli / AFP / Getty Images

That there are Palestinian leaders who were compelled, out of weakness and fatigue, to agree to a non-militarized Palestine is irrelevant, as is the very sensible belief that developing countries should not invest heavily in a military. A people that has always relied on the “kindness of strangers” must be able to defend itself. That is valid for the State of Israel, and it is equally valid for the State of Palestine. 

It was not a real solution, because it did not meet the minimum set of reasonable conditions for statehood.  For example, the proposed borders of the state, even after land swaps, would finalize the Judaization of the greater Jerusalem metropolitan area, providing Palestinians with a hole in a Jewish bagel. The settlement blocs would divide the Palestinian state from North to South and the Negev would divide the Palestinian state from  East to West. The other elements of the Clinton proposals or the Geneva Initiative, i.e. security arrangements, refugees, etc.,  all favor the Israelis at the expense of the Palestinians. 

Advocates of the two-state solution will respond, “Yes, but at least the Palestinians will have a state. Had they accepted the partition plan in 1947, they would have had a larger state without refugees.” Really? Had the Palestinians joined the Zionists in accepting the partition plan in 1947, it is more likely that neither side would have honored it. Even the Zionists, who accepted it, discarded it at the earliest opportunity.  Both sides years later failed to honor the Oslo Accords they signed, and Israel was quick to appeal to security concerns in order to justify territorial gain in 1956 and 1967.

What really determines the security of the Israelis and the Palestinians is, not surprisingly, the balance of power between the peoples. And, under any of the proposed two-state solutions, the Palestinians would be dependent to a large extent on Israel’s largesse. 

For the two-state solution to be a viable option, there must be a fair and equitable division of the land and resources of Israel/Palestine, a division that provides for a symmetry of power and resources between the two peoples, including room for immigrants from their respective  diaspora communities. The current two-state proposals, justified entirely by facts on the ground, and by a desire to solve the Jewish “demographic problem,” distribute land and resources in a grossly inequitable manner. This is a sure recipe for breeding terrorism, vigilantism, and irredentism. Even the accepted US formula for two states: “a secure Israel alongside a viable, contiguous Palestine” is humiliating. If you don’t understand why, just switch the two names.

How about a one-state solution? Or, to be more precise, how about a different “one state” from the current one state ruled by Israel, in which the Palestinians of Israel are excluded from the nation-state, rendering them politically impotent, and in which Palestinian subjects of the West Bank and Gaza, are under Israel’s control?  A more equitable binationalist state may be the solution for the future, but it is presently thwarted by opposing nationalist narratives, hardened by the occupation and by the Israeli policy of "hafrada" (segregation), which fosters mutual ignorance and distrust.

Instead of focusing on impractical political solutions, friends of Israel and Palestine should adopt more fundamental principles. Here are two:

Joint Struggle for Civil Rights and Self-Determination. Recently, several prominent Israelis have called on Israel to withdraw unilaterally from parts of the West Bank in a move they termed, “Peace Without Partners.” Yet this return to Zionist unilateralism will achieve neither peace nor the minimum of justice required by both peoples for coexistence. Rather, people of good will from around the globe should become “Partners Without Peace” in a struggle for the civil rights and self-determination of Palestinians (and Israelis, who already have them.) 

Re-education and Fostering Understanding of the Other.  Both sides, as unequal in power as they currently are,  have to be re-educated to understand that at the heart of the Israel-Palestinian conflict are conflicting foundational claims that can no longer be adjudicated. Their goal should be to work gradually towards a reasonably fair compromise between the parties that will allow both peoples security and flourishing. The ultimate goal should not a sanctification of the status quo, including the Israeli regime established in 1948, but rather a willingness to re-think how both the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples can have equal opportunities to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

This is a herculean task for more than one generation. But there are no short-cuts.  During the very long night ahead of us, the joint struggle of people from Israel/Palestine and from around the globe should continue to focus on civil and political equality, until more come to realize that the problems between the two sides are foundational. Non-violent tactics that exert pressure on both sides, including boycotts and sanctions,  should be considered and adopted if they will further the aforementioned goals. 

The “We-all-know-what-the-solution-will-look-like–we-just-don’t-know-how-to-get-there” attitude may be comforting to liberal Zionists—but it is just another messianic illusion that allows them to sleep soundly while the oppression and injustice continues. Indeed, the messiah will come before an equitable two-state solution is implemented. And Zionism is not about waiting for the messiah.

Friday, September 16, 2016

How Jewish Students Should Approach the Study of Israel/Palestine on Campus

Dear Readers,

As some have pointed out to me, this blog is virtually defunct. I hope to write something occasionally, and I will post it here. 

The following piece appeared yesterday in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. It was cowritten with Prof. Stef Krieger of Hofstra University Law School.

(JTA) -- As university professors, as committed Jews, and as friends, we were puzzled by Arnold Eisen's recent op-ed for JTA, "Jewish pride on campus is under siege. Here’s what your kids can do to fight back."

It is not because we disagree with his positions on Zionism, on Israel and Palestine, or on the place of Israel in one's Jewish identity. No doubt we do disagree with those positions, but that disagreement is le-shem shamayim,"for the sake of heaven."

It is that Chancellor Eisen's advice to young Jews entering college seems so problematic to us.

Dr. Eisen, the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, writes that "over 300,000" young Jewish college students are liable to have their “Jewish selves” shaken “to the core" on college campuses. One would think that college campuses across the country are hotbeds of anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism.

Yet, as has been reported in the media, fights over Israel/Palestine simply don't exist at the vast majority of college campuses in the US, and most students, including Jewish students, are apathetic on Israel. Yes, there have been campuses where events have been reported, especially in the Jewish press. Both sides have cried foul. But exaggerating the extent of the phenomenon spreads alarmism in the Jewish community.

And yet, even if we concede that the problem is as great as Chancellor Eisen's op-ed suggests, we would still disagree with his response to it. We agree that Jewish students should be proud of their heritage, that they should learn about Israel and Judaism. But we don't agree that Jewish students should avoid faculty and students who, for example, refer to Israel as "colonialist" or worse. What if the faculty at their universities teach that Zionism is a settler-colonialist phenomenon? Should students seek to learn about Israel only at Hillel, or by taking Birthright or Federation-sponsored trips? 


Our advice to all students interested in learning about Israel/Palestine is the same advice we give to students in exploring any area of inquiry: Read a lot of scholarship on the subject. Develop a critical and skeptical attitude towards tendentious, false and unsupported claims in books, on the web or social media, by teachers, and yes, by your religious leaders, parents, and friends. This intellectual process may make some students question, and even weaken, their attachment to the State of Israel, or draw them closer to the struggle for Palestinian rights. Or it may or may not strengthen their commitment to Israel. Whatever the outcome, students should engage in this process.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

On Anti-Palestinianism and Anti-Semitism

By “anti-Palestinianism” I understand prejudice against Palestinian Arabs based on perceived negative qualities of Palestinian cultural or natural identity. Views such as “Palestinian Arab culture is a culture of death and martyrdom,” “Palestinian Arabs hate Jews because of incitement,” “Palestinian Arab labor is inferior” are examples of this prejudice. Attempts to justify these prejudices are inevitably based on selective data, generalization, and bias.

By “anti-Semitism,” I understand prejudice against Jews based on perceived negative qualities of Jewish cultural, natural, or religious identity. Opinions such as, “Jews love only money,” “There is a worldwide Jewish conspiracy against gentiles,” “Jews are loud, noisy, and uncouth,” etc. are examples of this prejudice. Attempts to justify these prejudices are also inevitably based on selective data, generalization, and bias.

What I would like to discuss here is how the current vogue of identifying anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism is anti-Palestinianist, i.e., the product of bigotry towards Palestinians. I won’t bother to “disprove” the identification itself, any more than I would bother to “disprove” anti-Semitic claims. I applaud those who have the stomach for such “disproofs”; I don’t.

“Anti-Palestinianism” and “anti-Semitism” should be examined in light of the broader phenomenon of group prejudice. Regrettably, they often are not. Anti-Semitism is considered a serious moral failing in Western society today, whereas anti-Palestinianism is not even recognized as a phenomenon to be studied. The reason for this has a lot to do with the prominence accorded to anti-Semitism in Western consciousness for well-known historical reasons. The founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, saw a nation-state of the Jews to be the solution to anti-Semitism. The Holocaust reinforced that view for many.

The so-called “New Anti-Semitism” was born of the increasing identification, shared by some Zionists and anti-Semites, of Israelism and Judaism. Although Zionism as a movement of national revival had many different aspects (some Zionists actively opposed the creation of a Jewish ethnic-exclusivist state), the particular form that Zionism took in the newly created laws and institutions of the state of Israel became identified with Zionism tout court. For Zionists like David Ben-Gurion, to be a complete Jew was to be a Zionist, and to be a complete Zionist was to be a citizen of the State of Israel, where “statism” (mamlakhtiyyut) was a supreme value. His view was resisted by many other Jews, Zionists, non-Zionists, and anti-Zionists, even after the creation of the state in 1948 (although a version of it  has been embraced by latter-day Zionist ideologues like the writer, A. B. Yehoshua). But after Israel’s capture in 1967 of territories of historical significance for Jews, the growing acceptance of ethnic diversity in western societies, and the increasing prominence according to the Holocaust in popular culture, Israel became an important component in the identity for many Jews.

Especially for the generation of 1967, to oppose Zionism was in effect to oppose the self-determination of the Jewish people, which was to imply that Jews as a people have less rights to self-determination than other peoples. This purported “singling out” of the Jews was seen by some to motivated by, or identical with, anti-Semitism. And because anti-Semitism, like racism, had become a term of moral opprobrium in modern society, “anti-Semite” was applied to those who wished replace the State of Israel with another political system, for whatever motivation, even if they thought it better for the Jews.

Today, if one rejects the claims of Jews to a state of their own in Palestine, i.e., if one rejects statist Zionism, one is considered by these people to be at best an unwitting or inadvertent anti-Semite. The same is true if one wishes to replace the Zionist state with a state that is predominantly a civic one – Muslim, Christian, and Jewish. The same is true if one thinks that founding the State of Israel in the way it was founded was bad for Jews and for Arabs.

It also follows that if one is a Palestinian and shares any of the aforementioned beliefs, one is, at best, an unwitting anti-Semite. And that conclusion is anti-Palestinianist because it says that Palestinians can have no other motive for opposing a Jewish state than implacable hatred of the Jews. And if that conclusion seems too bizarre even for those who are wont to find “anti-Semites” everywhere, it is less so when applied to Palestinian sympathizers. “After all ,why should a British Labourite be sympathetic to anti-Zionism if she is not herself related to a Palestinian – unless that sympathy is, perhaps, unconsciously, tinged by anti-Semitism.” But aside from trivializing anti-Semitism, that conclusion is also anti-Palestinianist – because it implies that the Palestinians have little justified claim to sympathy, either because their suffering has not been so great, or, worse, they have brought it upon themselves. And because the accusation of “anti-Semitism” carries with it a particular tone of moral opprobrium following the Holocaust, the accusation is hurtful in ways that “anti-Zionism” or “anti-Israelism” are not. (Cf. the use of the term “apartheid” rather than “separation” or “segregation” as a term of moral opprobrium.)

My claim that the identification of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism is itself an anti-Palestinianist canard does not exclude the possibility that there will be anti-Zionists who are anti-Semites, or who, more likely, use anti-Semitic tropes. Negative stereotypes of Jews have been found among some anti-Zionists, and they should and have been condemned. Ditto for the employment of anti-Semitic stereotypes and tropes by some Zionists. Internalizing the negative images of Jews of the anti-Semites, some Zionists “negated the diaspora” and looked forward to a new, “muscular” Jew who would replace the weak, effeminate, cunning Jew of the diaspora -- when the Jews have their own state. Zionist-motivated anti-Semitism is alive and well every time a diaspora Jew is criticized for “kowtowing to the goyim,” or called a “Jewboy” (yehudon, in Hebrew) by a rightwing Israeli politician.

To talk of “anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism” without mentioning anti-Semitic tropes within Zionism is, once again, to employ the emotive power of the “anti-Semitism” accusation to delegitimize critics of the Jewish state. The speaker may avoid identifying anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, but the implied guilt by association, though a lesser form of bigotry, is bigotry, nonetheless. And when one singles out anti-Semitism for moral opprobrium without even acknowledging anti-Palestinianism, one loses the moral high ground and simply parrots partisan polemic.

All bigotry should be condemned, whether the target group is powerful or weak. But there should be special concern for the consequences of bigotry aimed at the weak, since those consequences will be more dire. Anti-Semitism can never be justified, and it should be called out when found. And the pro-Palestinian movement has done that. But insufficient sensitivity to anti-Palestinianism is, under present circumstances, a greater sin for those who care about the real consequences of bias and bigotry.

To be sure, those who care for the well-being and equal rights of the people living in Israel/Palestine will not agree on how to achieve those rights. One can oppose many forms of political resolutions without being bigoted, and one can oppose tactics as inappropriate or counter-productive without bias or prejudice. Particular tacics endorsed by  the Palestinian National Boycott committee have been criticized. But this opposition should be based on argument,  not on bigoted insensitivity, especially when directed against the weak and vulnerable. Boycott, divestment, and sanctions are generally legitimate tactics, the wisdom of which can be debated. But delegitimizing or demonizing, much less criminalizing, the BDS movement is, in most cases, the product of anti-Palestinianist bias and should be rejected by decent people on all sides.

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Need for a Center Left Political Alternative in Israel

Since the election of Ehud Barak as prime minister in 1999, if not earlier, there has been no center left in Israel. Of course, there has been something referred to as “center left” but that was only relative to the so-called right of the Likud, Kadima, Shinui, Yesh Atid, and defunct parties whose name I forget. Former prime minister, Ehud Barak managed almost single-handedly  to destroy the center left, which had supported recognition of the rights of the Palestinians to self-determination, and which  had viewed moderate Israelis and Palestinians as partners for peace against the extremists of both sides. With Barak, even before the total collapse of the peace process, the motivation for a settlement with the Palestinians was to separate the populations, to keep the West Bank and Gaza under direct security and indirect economic control of Israel, and to grant limited autonomy to Palestinians. Barak’s views differed little from  Netanyahu, which explains in part  his ability to serve as Defense Minister in Netanyahu’s government.


The Barak Doctrine was simple: separation from the Palestinians (“We are here; they are there”); Israeli  security and economic control over the West Bank and Gaza; limited Palestinian autonomy with Israel’s security being contracted out, in part,  to the Palestinian Authority. Israel would help facilitate, or at least would not stand in the way, of Palestinian economic growth in areas that did not threaten the Israeli economy.  The difference, perhaps, between Barak and Netanyahu was the extent of expansion into the West Bank they thought possible. Both were willing to allow  settlements even outside the settlement blocs to grow without taking steps to curb them.

The Barak Doctrine should now be known as the Herzog Doctrine; in fact, I cannot see any difference between them. From  Barak’s Labor Party to Herzog’s Zionist Union, there has been a consistent vision of the status quo and the endgame; the party’s criticisms against the right have generally been more of style than of substance. Herzog has often criticized Netanyahu for alienating Israel’s allies, and for his relying on the extreme right wing.  Instead of presenting the Zionist Camp as an ideological alternative to the Likud and the other right wing parties, he has presented himself as a more effective political leader than Bibi. He will do what Bibi would like to do, only  better – because he will do it with the understanding of the US and Europe.

It is the failure of the Zionist Camp to offer a  center left alternative that has led people like Haaretz’s owner, Amos Schocken, to suggest that only international intervention will preserve the state of Israel.  Were there to be a center left, even were it to be in the opposition, Schocken would not have written his powerful piece.

So one should not blame the leftwing activists,  intellectuals, and journalists who call for international intervention, or who display Israel’s human rights abuses for all the world to see, for the demise of Israel’s center left. That is getting the story backwards. Were the Zionist Camp to offer a party around which people could rally – not because the party doesn’t like Bibi and the rightwing, but because it doesn’t  like his vision and his policies – then there would be an address for political action within Israel. Even the so-called extreme left would support it, as it supported Rabin in the early stages of Oslo.

Can there be a center left political alternative in Israel? Some people think that it is not possible. I am not sure, but I don’t think giving up on it  is a good idea.  For the Palestinians to achieve even partial liberty, for the current phase of the Occupation to end, there must be a political constituency in Israel that articulates a different vision from that of the Likud and its various imitator policies.

Personally, I cannot accept the ideology of even a reformed, progressive, Zionist Left. But I can recognize its practical importance in the evolution of Israeli thinking towards the Palestinians. So any steps that are taken to create a real ideological and political alternative to the anti-Palestinian Center should have the support not only of the Zionist Left, but of all people who want justice for the Palestinians. 

This is not a time for ideological purity.  There is an overriding goal and that is ending the Occupation, and bringing justice and security to the Palestinian people. For this to happen, there must be at least three things: a strong Palestinian movement;  a strong Israeli political movement advocating for change; and international incentives and pressure, including boycotts and sanctions.  These three groups will have different aims, and they certainly will not be coordinated.  For example, the Israeli political movement cannot and should not call for international intervention. But it has the obligation of warning  the Israeli public of that intervention. 

There has to be an Israeli political movement that is truly center left.  I don’t know how or whether that will come about. But I can tell you right now, I will support it, despite any skepticism I may have.